Quotations about   power

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Some people idealize force and pull it into the foreground and worship it, instead of keeping it in the background as long as possible. I think they make a mistake, and I think that their opposites, the mystics, err even more when they declare that force does not exist. I believe that it exists, and that one of our jobs is to prevent it from getting out of its box. It gets out sooner or later, and then it destroys us and all the lovely things which we have made. But it is not out all the time, for the fortunate reason that the strong are so stupid.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
Added on 4-Sep-19 | Last updated 4-Sep-19
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If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power.

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) American general, US President (1953-61)
Speech, Fourth Annual Republican Women’s National Conference, Washington, DC (6 Mar 1956)
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Added on 10-Apr-19 | Last updated 10-Apr-19
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To be vested with enormous authority is a fine thing; but to have the onlooking world consent to it is a finer.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, ch. 8 “The Boss” (1889)
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Added on 2-Feb-19 | Last updated 2-Feb-19
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Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch, Part 3 “The Work,” “The Passive Voice, or The Secret Agent” (1989)
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Added on 26-Nov-18 | Last updated 26-Nov-18
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GRACCHUS: You know, this republic of ours is something like a rich widow. Most Romans love her as their mother, but Crassus dreams of marrying the old girl, to put it politely.

Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) American screenwriter and novelist [James Dalton Trumbo]
Spartacus (1960) [novel by Howard Fast]
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Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
On Tyranny, ch. 10 (2017)
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Added on 7-Jun-18 | Last updated 7-Jun-18
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Money is said to be power, which is, in some cases, true; and the same may be said of knowledge; but superior sobriety, industry and activity, are a still more certain source of power; for without these, knowledge is of little use; and, as to the power which money gives, it is that of brute force, it is the power of the bludgeon and the bayonet, and of the bribed press, tongue and pen.

William Cobbett (1763-1835) English politician, agriculturist, journalist, pamphleteer
Advice to Young Men, Letter 1, #40 (1829)
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Ambition is a Lust that’s never quench’d,
Grows more inflam’d and madder by Enjoyment.

Thomas Otway (1652-1685) English dramatist
The History and Fall of Caius Marius, Act 5, sc. 4 (1680)
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Added on 18-Oct-17 | Last updated 18-Oct-17
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Government was intended to suppress injustice, but it offers new occasions and temptations for the commission of it.

William Godwin (1756-1836) English journalist, political philosopher, novelist
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, “Summary of Principles” 2.4 (1793)
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Added on 16-Oct-17 | Last updated 16-Oct-17
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A just man is not one who does no ill,
But he, who with the power, has not the will.

Philemon (c. 362 BC – c. 262 BC) Athenian poet and playwright
Sententiæ, II

Attributed in John Booth, Epigrams, Ancient and Modern (1863)..
Added on 12-Sep-17 | Last updated 12-Sep-17
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If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.

Florynce "Flo" Kennedy (1916-2000) American lawyer, feminist, civil rights activist
Speech, Washington, DC (15 May 1971)

Quoted in Off Our Backs (24 Jun 1971). Gloria Steinem, who also used the phrase, later claimed it was said to her and Kennedy by an "old Irish woman taxi driver" in Boston, but she attributed it at other times to Kennedy herself. More info here.
Added on 24-Apr-17 | Last updated 24-Apr-17
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Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
(Attributed)
Added on 22-Mar-17 | Last updated 22-Mar-17
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What has destroyed every previous civilization has been the tendency to the unequal distribution of wealth and power. This same tendency, operating with increasing force, is observable in our civilization to-day, showing itself in every progressive community, and with greater intensity the more progressive the community. Wages and interest tend constantly to fall, rent to rise, the rich to become very much richer, the poor to become more helpless and hopeless, and the middle class to be swept away.

Henry George (1839-1897) American economist
Progress and Poverty, “How Modern Civilization May Decline” (1879)
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A right should not be absolute for the same reason that a power should not be absolute.

R. H. Tawney (1880-1962) English writer, economist, historian, social critic [Richard Henry Tawney]
The Acquisitive Century, ch. 4 “The Nemesis of Industrialism” (1920)
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See Lord Acton.
Added on 9-Feb-17 | Last updated 9-Feb-17
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It was said that God, in order to test mankind which had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah, had commanded the wise men of that age, among them the Blessed Leibowitz, to devise great engines of war such as had never before been upon the Earth, weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of Hell, and that God had suffered these magi to place the weapons in the hands of princes, and to say to each prince: “Only because the enemies have such a thing have we devised this for thee, in order that they may know that thou hast it also, and fear to strike. See to it, m’Lord, that thou fearest them as much as they shall now fear thee, that none may unleash this dread thing which we have wrought.” But the princes, putting the words of their wise men to naught, thought each to himself: If I but strike quickly enough, and in secret, I shall destroy these others in their sleep, and there will be none to fight back; the earth shall be mine.

Such was the folly of princes, and there followed the Flame Deluge.

Walter M. Miller Jr. (1923-1996) American science fiction writer
A Canticle for Leibowitz, “Fiat Homo,” ch. 6 (1959)
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With great power there must also come — great responsibility!

lee-great-power-comes-great-responsibility-wist_info-quote

Stan Lee (b. 1922) American comic-book writer, publisher, media personality [b. Stanley Martin Lieber]
Amazing Fantasy (Aug 1962)

Used in the original Spider-Man story.
Added on 20-Jan-17 | Last updated 20-Jan-17
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Terrorism and deception are weapons not of the strong but of the weak.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) Indian philosopher and nationalist [Mahatma Gandhi]
In Young India (22 Sep 1920)
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It’s said that “power corrupts,” but actually it’s more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power. When they do act, they think of it as service, which has limits. The tyrant, though, seeks mastery, for which he is insatiable, implacable.

David Brin (b. 1950) American scientist and author
The Postman, ch. 14 (1985)

Often paraphrased: "It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power." See Frank Herbert.
Added on 21-Oct-16 | Last updated 21-Oct-16
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A friend in power is a friend lost.

Henry Adams (1838-1918) American journalist, historian, academic, novelist
The Education of Henry Adams, ch. 7 (1907)
Added on 20-Oct-16 | Last updated 20-Oct-16
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All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.

Frank Herbert (1920-1986) American writer
Chapterhouse: Dune (1985)
Added on 17-Oct-16 | Last updated 17-Oct-16
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The power to tax involves the power to destroy.

John Marshall (1755-1835) American lawyer, politician, Supreme Court Chief Justice (1801-1835)
McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819)
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Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.

Henry Adams (1838-1918) American journalist, historian, academic, novelist
The Education of Henry Adams, ch. 1 (1907)

Restated by George Will in saying that the value of political parties was that "They organize our animosities." Interview, The Colbert Report (3 Jun 2008) at 6:43.
Added on 13-Oct-16 | Last updated 26-Oct-18
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Individual liberty is individual power, and as the power of a community is a mass compounded of individual powers, the nation which enjoys the most freedom must necessarily be in proportion to its numbers the most powerful nation.

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) US President (1825-29)
Letter to James Lloyd (1 Oct 1822)
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It is a strange desire, to seek power and to lose liberty.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English philosopher, scientist, author, statesman
Essays, “Of Great Place” (1625)
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Our Passions, Ambition, Avarice, Love, Resentment &c possess so much metaphysical Subtilty and so much overpowering Eloquence, that they insinuate themselves into the Understanding and the Conscience and convert both to their Party. And I may be deceived as much as any of them, when I Say, that Power must never be trusted without a Check.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (2 Feb 1816)
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The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.

Adams - jaws of power - wist_info quote

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765)
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My view was that every executive officer, and above all every executive officer in high position, was a steward of the people bound actively and affirmatively to do all he could for the people, and not to content himself with the negative merit of keeping his talents undamaged in a napkin. I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the Nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws. Under this interpretation of executive power I did and caused to be done many things not previously done by the President and the heads of the departments. I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power. In other words, I acted for the public welfare, I acted for the common well-being of all our people, whenever and in whatever manner was necessary, unless prevented by direct constitutional or legislative prohibition.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) US President (1901-1909)
Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography, ch. 10 (1926)
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Yes, but water decomposed into its primitive elements … and decomposed doubtless, by electricity, which will then have become a powerful and manageable force, for all great discoveries, by some inexplicable law, appear to agree and become complete at the same time. Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable. Some day the coalrooms of steamers and the tenders of locomotives will, instead of coal, be stored with these two condensed gases, which will burn in the furnaces with enormous calorific power. There is, therefore, nothing to fear. As long as the earth is inhabited it will supply the wants of its inhabitants, and there will be no want of either light or heat as long as the productions of the vegetable, mineral or animal kingdoms do not fail us. I believe, then, that when the deposits of coal are exhausted we shall heat and warm ourselves with water. Water will be the coal of the future!

Jules Verne (1828-1905) French novelist, poet, playwright
The Mysterious Island, Part 2, ch. 11 (1874)
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What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) Dutch Catholic priest and writer
In the Name of Jesus (1989)
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Riches are a trust. … Power is a trust. So also is genius or every degree of wisdom. … Talents are a trust, too; that is the condition of their increase. They must be put out to use, or they will ruin the steward.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (July 1831)
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My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.

Audre Lorde (1934-1992) American writer, feminist, civil rights activist
“The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” (1981)
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How should I be able to govern others when I don’t know how to govern myself?

François Rabelais (1494-1553) French writer, humanist, doctor
Gargantua and Pantagruel, 1.52 (1532-1552) [tr. Cohen (1955)]
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BRUTUS: The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English dramatist and poet
Julius Caesar, Act 2, Sc. 1, l. 18 (1599)
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Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed.

Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) American politician
Speech, accepting the GOP Presidential Nomination, San Francisco (16 Jul 1964)
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See Acton.
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Might was the measure of right.

[Mensuraque juris / Vis erat.]

Lucan (AD 39-65) Roman poet [Marcus Annaeus Lucanus]
Pharsalia, 1.175
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Referring to earlier eras of anarchy.
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TRELANE: I don’t know if I like your tone. It’s most challenging. That’s what you’re doing, challenging me?

SPOCK: I object to you. I object to intellect without reason. I object to power without constructive purpose.

TRELANE: Why, Mr. Spock, you do have a saving grace, after all — you’re ill-mannered!

Paul Schneider (1923-2008) American screenwriter
Star Trek, 1×17 “The Squire of Gothos” (1967)
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Privilege should not be tolerated because it is to the advantage of a minority; nor yet because it is to the advantage of a majority. No doctrinaire theories of vested rights or freedom of contract can stand in the way of our cutting out abuses from the body politic.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) US President (1901-1909)
“Biological Analogies in History,” Romanes Lecture, Oxford University (7 Jun 1910)
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Lust of absolute power is more burning than all the passions.

[Cupido dominandi cunctis affectibus flagrante est.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Annals, 15.53 (AD 117)
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The intoxication of power rapidly sobers off in the knowledge of its restrictions and under the prompt reminder of an ever-present and not always considerate press, as well as the kindly suggestions that not infrequently come from Congress.

William Howard Taft (1857-1930) US President (1909-13) and Chief Justice (1921-1930)
Speech, Lotus Club (16 Nov 1912)
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Every successful revolution puts on in time the robes of the tyrant it has deposed.

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989) American historian and author
Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945, ch. 8 (1972)
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A system cannot fail those it was never designed to protect.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) American writer, historian, social reformer [William Edward Burghardt Du Bois]
(Attributed)
Added on 21-May-15 | Last updated 21-May-15
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I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature; and that power, whether vested in many or a few, is ever grasping, and, like the grave, cries, “Give, give!” The great fish swallow up the small; and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

Abigail Adams (1744-1818) American correspondent, First Lady (1797-1801)
Letter to John Adams (27 Nov 1775)
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The ambitious deceive themselves when they propose an end to their ambition; for that end, when attained, becomes a means.

François VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) French epigrammist, memoirist, noble
Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales [Maxims], # 32 (1665-1678)
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It would be some time before I fully realized that the United States sees little need for diplomacy; power is enough. Only the weak rely on diplomacy. This is why the weak are so deeply concerned with the democratic principle of the sovereign equality of states, as a means of providing some small measure of equality for that which is not equal in fact. Coming from a developing country, I was trained extensively in international law and diplomacy and mistakenly assumed that the great powers, especially the United States, also trained their representatives in diplomacy and accepted the value of it. But the Roman Empire had no need for diplomacy. Nor does the United States. Diplomacy is perceived by an imperial power as a waste of time and prestige and a sign of weakness.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali (b. 1922) Egyptian politician, diplomat, UN Secretary-General (1992-1996)
Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga (1999)
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Science increases our power in proportion as it lowers our pride.

Claude Bernard (1813-1878) French physiologist, scientist
Bulletin of New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 4 (1928)
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People with real power never fear of losing it. People with control think of little else.

Joss Whedon (b. 1964) American screenwriter, author, producer [Joseph Hill Whedon]
“Mom, He’s Doing It Again…”, Whedonesque.com (10 Nov 2007)
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The rack, or question, to extort a confession from criminals, is a practice of a different nature; […] an engine of the state, not of law.

William Blackstone (1723-1780) British jurist, judge, politician
Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 4 “Of Public Wrongs,” ch. 25 “Arraignment” (1769)
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The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.

James Madison (1751-1836) American statesman, political theorist, US President (1809-17)
The Federalist #57 (19 Feb 1788)
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All lawful authority, legislative, and executive, originates from the people. Power in the people is like light in the sun: native, original, inherent, and unlimited by anything human. In governors it may be compared to the reflected light of the moon, for it is only borrowed, delegated, and limited by the intention of the people; whose it is, and to whom governors are to consider themselves as responsible, while the people are answerable only to God; — themselves being the losers, if they pursue a false scheme of politics.

James Burgh (1714-1775) British politician and writer
Political Disquisitions, Book 1 “Of Government, briefly” (1774)
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The Declaration of Independence announces the sublime truth, that all power comes from the people. This was a denial, and the first denial of a nation, of the infamous dogma that God confers the right upon one man to govern others. It was the first grand assertion of the dignity of the human race. It declared the governed to be the source of power, and in fact denied the authority of any and all gods. Through the ages of slavery — through the weary centuries of the lash and chain, God was the acknowledged ruler of the world. To enthrone man, was to dethrone God.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) American lawyer, agnostic, orator
“Individuality” (1873)
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Power always Sincerely, conscientiously, de très bon foi, believes itself Right. Power always thinks it has a great Soul and vast Views, beyond the Comprehension of the Weak; and that it is doing God Service when it is violating all his Laws.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (2 Feb 1816)
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de très bon foi = "very candidly"
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Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.

Francis I (b. 1936) Argentinian Catholic Pope (2013- ) [b. Jorge Mario Bergoglio]
“How the Church Will Change,” interview with Eugenio Scalfari, La Repubblica (1 Oct 2013) [tr. K Wallace]
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As a rule, people aren’t good at handling power. And the second you start to think you’re better at controlling your power than anyone else, you’ve already taken the first step.

Jim Butcher (b. 1971) American author
Cold Days (2012)
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If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.

Elizabeth Warren (b. 1949) American academic and politician [née Herring]
Speech, Emily’s List PAC, New York (22 Sep 2014)
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The problem of power is how to achieve its responsible use rather than its irresponsible and indulgent use — of how to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.

Robert Francis Kennedy (1925-1968) American politician
The Pursuit of Justice, “I Remember, I Believe” (1964)
Added on 22-Sep-14 | Last updated 22-Sep-14
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